Word came at 9:55 P.M. to the Chinle, Arizona, office of an air ambulance service that a patient needed transport from Alamosa, Colorado, 192 nm
to the east-northeast. Forty minutes later, a King Air C90 with a pilot, a paramedic and a nurse aboard was airborne. It never arrived. The airplane struck a ridge 37 nm west of Alamosa; all three occupants died.
The outlook called for scattered clouds at 8,000 to 10,000 feet agl, a broken layer at 12,000 to 14,000, widely scattered light rain showers and isolated thunderstorms, with no warnings for mountain obscuration.
The 46-year-old ATP made a couple of careless mistakes at the start of the flight. He identified himself to Denver Center with the callsign of one of the company’s other King Airs, and he told his dispatcher, a minute after getting airborne, that his time en route would be 20 minutes.
Checking in with Denver for VFR flight following, as company rules required, the pilot first climbed to 13,500, then descended to 11,500, then climbed back up to 13,500. The terrain elevation over the first half of the route, across the high desert of northern Arizona and New Mexico, is around 6,000 feet; it is unlighted except for widely scattered towns and a few lightly traveled roads. The moon had set hours earlier, and the darkness was almost complete.
Forty minutes into the flight, Denver Center gave the pilot a frequency change. Coming up on the new frequency, the pilot reported that he was “on the descent into Alamosa.” The controller gave him the altimeter setting. The pilot then asked for “the minimum vectoring altitude out here.” The controller asked him to repeat the request. “What is the MSA [minimum safe altitude] out here, do you know?”
The controller still did not understand. “I guess I’m just not understanding what you’re saying,” he said. “Either I’m really tired ... you’re talking a little fast; slow her down for me a little, will ya?”
“I’m actually new into Alamosa,” the pilot replied. “Just wondering what the minimum descent altitude was out here.”
The controller, finally understanding the pilot’s confusingly worded request — minimum safe altitude, minimum vectoring altitude and minimum descent altitude are three different things — told him that the MIA (minimum IFR altitude) for the area he was in was 15,000 feet. He added that he would be “cutting across the corner” of an area where the MIA was slightly higher — 15,300 feet — before it started to drop toward Alamosa, where the field elevation is 7,539 feet. After explaining that the flight would be passing through four different MIA areas, the controller told the pilot that he was now “getting ready to enter the 15,300 minimum IFR altitude area.” The pilot acknowledged and, at around this time, began to descend from 13,500 feet. The last radar hit, a minute and nine seconds later, reported a Mode C altitude of 11,700 feet. An instant after that, the King Air struck an 11,930-foot ridge, sliding uphill as it disintegrated and caught fire. The 900-foot debris path ended just below the crest of the ridge.